Tom is helping me pack. We are rushing around in the pre-dawn dark throwing stuff in my rucksack. He brings up his crampons from the basement and an old Nalgene water bottle that he blows some dead spiders out of. I am stuffing layers and layers of clothing to bring with me, extra pair of dry socks, extra dry glove liners. The weather report says it is going to be very windy—below zero with the wind chill factor. I add Tom’s wind proof balaclava.
Tom is grinning at me. He used to teach the R.O.P.E. course for Concord High students and they did a “winter survival” weekend. I think he is getting a huge amount of amusement now that his wife is heading out to be one with the frigid elements.
He says, “Knock ‘em dead, honey.”
“Wise ass,” I say as I peck him on the cheek and head for my car.
I have signed up for the “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” winter survival course sponsored by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Really, if I want to be a serious nature blogger, I figure I need to have a little more experience with adverse conditions out in the field. I am a little nervous attempting something new at this advanced age, but I am also excited.
Half way to the course, a winter squall blows in and creates severe whiteout conditions. I put my Jeep in 4-wheel drive. Another Jeep from Massachusetts is tailgating me. I can’t go any faster because there is a little dark car in front of me…besides, the road is way too shitty to drive any faster. I gently tap my brakes to signal, “get off my ass, buddy” to the Mass. car. He sticks to me like aggressive glue.
Suddenly, the little black car in front of me slams on its brakes. The road is sheer ice! I swear and slam on my brakes to avoid rear-ending the little black car and I swerve sideways. Then I see a red Camry in front of the little black car skid sideways, hit the snow bank, and flip straight up in the air, and then come crashing down on its roof on the other side of the snow bank. Holy shit!
The little black car and I pull over immediately. The Mass Jeep leans on its horn angrily as it speeds by.
“Massholes!” I yell at them as they disappear down the highway.
Four black haired, olive skinned boys, probably in their early twenties, leap out and rush to the upside-down driver’s side of the car. They start digging in the snow with their hands like dogs dig for a bone. Frantically, they are digging…digging…digging, scooping and sending the snow flying backwards behind them. I am standing on the snow bank watching this. I am assuming, with the way the roof of the car is flattened like a pancake, that the driver has not survived the crash. One of the boys has called 911.
The boys have dug down to the driver’s side window, which is shattered. I see movement! A man’s face is at the window—a very pale face.
I kneel down, “Sir, are you alone in your car?”
He answers weakly, “Yes.”
I see his glasses and reach in and get them before they get lost. The man sticks his head out of the window. He is blinking and looking around. He looks like Punxsutawney Phil crawling out of his hole. I am hoping he doesn’t see his shadow. For some bizarre reason, when the man crawls out of his window—a bunch of cereal boxes come out with him.
The man sits in the snow beside his car, still blinking, looking very dazed and shocked. Other than a few small cuts on his forehead, he seems to be in perfect health. He has been saved by the snow—and the boys. I sit with him until a first responder arrives. A small Jeep with flashing lights pulls up and a uniformed man who looks exactly like Eric Estrada in CHIPS steps out. I figure that my groundhog friend is in good hands now.
I touch the man gently on the shoulder as I leave. “Dude, you are the luckiest man on the planet right now.”
I approach the four gorgeous boys who are now standing quietly to the side. I shake their hands. I say, “You guys did a great job. You saved that man’s life. Thank you for all you’ve done.” I notice one of the boys has tears on his cheek.
I drive like a snail the rest of the way to the hunting lodge.
At the hunting lodge, it is sheer bedlam. There are women of all ages and shapes and sizes—all excited and yelling to old friends and laughing and screeching. The noise is deafening. It sounds like about 1000 migratory birds that have all landed in the same tree. There are 70 wild women in all. The male Conservation Officers who will be teaching some of the courses are huddled against the walls, eyes bulging in disbelief at the racket. They look like they are overwhelmed by the enormous amount of unopposed estrogen whirling around the room.
I watch as the women who have signed up for the “Shoe & Shoot” course march off with their rifles hoisted over their shoulders. Macho girls. They make me smile because they remind me of Elmer Fudd. “W-w-where is that cwazy wabbit?”
Brad, the Conservation Officer who is teaching our course is an ex-military search & rescue guy who first goes over all the necessary gear to avoid frostbite and hypothermia—with resulting amputation and death, respectively. We have two assignments today. One is to learn how to dig a snow cave for shelter if we are trapped above tree line (probably not in my future) and the other is how to build a lean-to shelter out of natural materials from the woods (probably happening in the foreseeable future.) We are to construct the shelter, build a fire, get water from the creek, and boil water over the fire to make hot cocoa.
The snow caves are dug into enormous snow mounds from the plow around the perimeter of the parking lot. Digging the cave reminds me of being a kid when we used to get huge amounts of snow in NH and we would dig forts in the drifts. The plowed snow is hard and the digging pretty much sucks. Chinking away with a shovel and an ice pick, I’m totally planning to never be caught above tree line and have to do this.
When the cave is done, we are to crawl in to see how it fits, how it feels. I lie there for a total of about 10 seconds before my claustrophobia kicks into high gear. My heart starts crashing, I get sweaty, I’m finding it hard to breath. MIDWIFE FOUND BURIED ALIVE!
I dive back out through the entrance and look up at my co-survivors. “I’d rather die,” I say.
The one thing that I learn in this course that is absolutely worth the price of admission is a nifty fire-starting secret. I think this is the nuts! You can make your own homemade “prepared tinder” for igniting kindling in wind and rain and holocausts by liberally coating cotton balls with Vaseline. Vaseline! Store the greased-up cotton balls in a Ziploc bag in your rucksack until you need a rip-roaring fire to survive the elements. The petroleum jelly in the Vaseline burns fiercely—long enough to get the kindling blazing. I have a blast running around like a fledgling arsonist, starting everyone’s fires with these ingenious slimy cotton balls.
For lunch, we have caribou, venison and bear stew and it is delicious. Over stew, I am regaling my lunch-table mates with the story of how Tom and I met. They are laughing hysterically but sometimes I wonder what they are really thinking. Cougar…certainly. Pedophile? Quite possibly.
After lunch, the little hemlock and spruce lean-to shelter my group makes is cozy and cunnin’ (actually, somehow I wander in with the wrong group—but this is okay—they let me survive with them anyway). The fire pit has a wind-wall made of snow that also reflects the heat back into the lean-to. There is one woman who is about 6 feet tall and is an Amazonian Goddess of the Fire. She is cutting down whole trees with a little ax. She is chopping like a mad woman, working herself up into a sweat, chopping with determination and machine-like precision. I’m thinking if I ever get lost in the woods—I want to get lost with her.
In no time at all, the Fire Goddess has a bonfire raging that is big enough to burn a few witches on. We rig up a stand with rocks for the pot of water to boil on. The Fire Goddess whittles some handles from sticks to lift the pot up without danger. By mid-afternoon, the first round of hot cocoa goes around and everyone is surviving. I decline the cocoa, wishing for a Margarita. Different survival mechanisms, I guess.
When the day is over and we are back in the hunting lodge, I am definitely feeling like a Winter Warrioress. I feel like I am walking a little taller, a little prouder. This was fun. I will definitely do another BOW course in the future.
Maybe by then I’ll have the ovaries enough to do the “Shoe & Shoot” biathlon course.
Back at home, later that night, I wake from dozing in front of the woodstove where I have been attempting to read “Ten Essentials for Your Survival Pack.” Tom has gone to bed. I realize that our old dog, Gladys, has not come in yet. This can mean only one thing—she’s out having a midnight snack at the compost pile. This also means, because she is a geriatric dog, that she will be shitting in the upstairs hall tonight. Dammit! Cussed dog.
I go stomping out the path that Tom has snowblowed for our dogs, called “Poop Alley.” I am yelling to her, but I know it is useless as Gladys is stone deaf. The compost pile is in our back field. The path is pretty dark and it is sheer ice, but I know my way by heart so I am marching along, in broken clogs, at a pretty good clip. What I don’t know is that there is a big bough fallen across the path, and I collide with it full-tilt. I skid on the ice sideways, hit the snow bank and flip straight up in the air, and then come crashing down on my left side. I hear something snap but maybe it was just the tree branch.
“HELP! I think I broke my arm!”
I am lying in Dog Poop Alley yelling my bloody head off. I look up to the sky in agony. The stars are wheeling brightly overhead and I feel nauseous. I realize no one can hear me yelling—certainly not Gladys, as if she cares. Only now do I realize that I forgot my Vaseline soaked cotton balls that I could light and use for rescue flares.
And wasn’t it only just a few hours ago that I was a proud Winter Warrioress? Now I am lying, crippled, in frozen dog shit. Gladys comes sauntering back down the path and sniffs me, like, “Um, dude, what are you doing lying on the ground?”
The smell of Gladys’s compost-breath is so hellacious that I get up immediately. I snivel and gimp my way back to the house. I crawl into bed and tell Tom what happened. He says I need to get my arm x-rayed.
I sigh. Who ever heard of a Winter Warrioress with a frickin’ cast on?
POSTSCRIPT: The x-ray shows that this Winter Weenie does indeed have a radial head fracture of the elbow, the classic ice-fall break for old ladies, which means a cast for 4 to 6 weeks. Feeling very sorry for myself at the present moment. WAH!